Clarence A. “Tod” Robbins’ novel “The Unholy Three” was first published in the “New Yorker Magazine” in 1917, the story concerned a schizophrenic ventriloquist, a malevolent midget and a brutish strongman who form a crime syndicate from a bird store used as a front to relieve the rich of their valuable possessions.
Tod Browning had expressed an interest in developing the story for the screen.Following his problems combating alcoholism, Browning found that noone else was convinced of the story’s cinematic potential.
Lon Chaney was hired in the role of criminal mastermind Professor Echo, a ventriloquist. Chaney had previously starred in MGM’s first film He Who Gets Slapped (1924).
The Unholy Three became the perfect collaboration for Browning and the star, an association that continued for eight more films.
The Unholy Three (1925) gave Lon Chaney the opportunity to again portray more than one principal character, a feat that very few actors could achieve. His characterisation of the ventriloquist disguised as the sweet and innocent Mrs. O’Grady who sells “talking” parrots to rich patrons was a tour-de-force performance from an actor who had already established his reputation as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923).
The Unholy Three premiered in San Francisco in May 1925 to great public acclaim and went on to become one of MGM’s highest grossing films of the year.
In the role of Hercules, described by the film’s carnival barker as “The mighty … marvellous … mastodonic model of masculinity!” is Victor McLaglen (1883-1959), who provides the necessary muscle for the trio, but is easily manipulated by his colleagues.
Tweedledee is played by Harry Earles, announced by the film’s barker as “Twenty inches!, Twenty years! Twenty Pounds! The 20th Century Curiosity!” , is the most ruthless of them all, alternating between his disguise as a charming infant and a cigar chomping gangster.
Tod and Lon’s profitable association continued with a steady stream of starring vehicles that included THE BLACKBIRD; THE ROAD TO MANDALAY; The Unknown; London After Midnight; THE BIG CITY; West of Zanzibar and their final collaboration Where East is East. During the release of Lon’s last film of 1929, THUNDER, a railroad melodrama that was filmed in below zero temperatures, Lon caught a cold that progressively led to pneumonia. He convalesced at his mountain cabin in Boulder Creek, Northern California and any further film projects were shelved pending his return to work. In October, 1929, Lon was diagnosed with lung cancer.
Most of Hollywood’s brightest stars had conceded to the new sound medium, all with varying degrees of success. Charlie Chaplin, the master of pantomime, was the last silent screen star to conform to the new standard. It wasn’t until 1936 with MODERN TIMES that Chaplin succumbed and even then it was a sequence that was no more than a garbled musical number for the film’s climax.
Lon Chaney’s aversion to talkies was obvious, he lamented the loss of film as a universal language.
THE UNHOLY THREE (1930) provided Chaney with not one, but five different character voices that included Professor Echo, Mrs. O’Grady, the ventriloquist dummy, a girl in the side-show audience and finally as the parrot. Chaney’s performance proves that he was not only a master of body and facial expression, but he also possessed a wide range of vocal talent.
As Tod Browning was unavailable to direct the film while he was at Universal busy working on preparations for Dracula, Lon Chaney and Irving Thalberg decided to utilise the talents of Jack Conway to direct the remake.
Conway, and the Nugent writing team carefully studied the original release of 1925 and decided not to make many changes, almost creating a scene for scene remake. The only major differences occur during the courtroom scene when Mrs. O’Grady takes the witness stand and her voice accidentally breaks. The attorney removes her wig to reveal Professor Echo who makes a full confession that causes the accused Hector to be released. The new ending shows Hector (Elliott Nugent), and Rosie, (Lila Lee), meeting Echo at the train station before he boards the train to prison. Rosie declares that she will wait for Echo’s release because of an arrangement made previously, but the ventriloquist rejects her proposal and calls out to Hector “You better come over here and take care of this girl of yours!” With the couple happily re-united, Echo’s train pulls out of the station and Chaney recites his last line, “I’ll send you a postal card!”
Harry Earles reprises his role of Tweedledee, but his thick German accent is often very difficult to understand. This was also the case in his other celebrated appearance as Hans in Freaks (1932).
Victor McLagen’s role as the strongman is here played by Ivan Linow who provides little more than what was required of the role. Apparently the only other screen credit for Linow is for a lower rung serial at Mascot Pictures titled SHADOW OF THE EAGLE in 1932. Directed by Ford Beebe, this 12 Chapter actioner starred John Wayne as Craig McCoy, a plucky individual who takes on a villainous saboteur of a small carnival. Again Linow appears as a strongman billed in-between “The Midget” an actor simply known as Little Billy, and James Bradbury Jnr. who portrays a ventriloquist.
In the original The Unholy Three (1925), the giant ape is quite cleverly a chimpanzee performing against scaled down sets. For the sound remake a conventional actor in an ape suit is used, but why Echo as Mrs. O’Grady is not questioned by the police about the sizeable simian as a candidate for the recent murders remains a mystery. The man-in-the-ape-suit is none other than Charles Gemora(1903-1961) who used the same moth eaten costume in a variety of Thirties pictures, the most notable being with Bela Lugosi in Universal’s Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) as Dr. Mirakle’s obedient servant Erik.
“That’s all there is to life. A little laughter…a little tear”
Lon Chaney seemed assured of a continuing career in the talkies and MGM planned several other projects with Chaney, the next being CHERI-BIBI based on the novel by Gaston Leroux. The film was eventually made in 1931 as The Phantom of Paris starring the rapidly fading light of John Gilbert.
However, Lon Chaney was never to make another film.
At the couple’s mountain cabin in the High Sierras, Lon’s bronchial cancer worsened.
Lon was admitted to St. Vincent’s Hospital on August 20th. 1930 where he died six days later when he suffered another haemorrhage in his throat.
All the studios in Hollywood held a two minute silence on the day Lon Chaney was buried alongside his father in Forest Lawn Cemetery at Glendale, California.
Unlike many screen performers whose final pictures are usually below par in comparison with their watershed years, Lon Chaney ended his career on a vocal triumph, proving that the Man of a Thousand Faces could also just as easily become known as the Man of a Thousand Voices.
THE UNHOLY THREE (1925/MGM) 76mins. 7 reels. BW. with tinted sequences. US.
Credits: Dir: Tod Browning; Prod: Irving J. Thalberg; Ex.Prod: Louis B. Mayer; Sc: Waldemar Young; Ph: David Kesson; Ed: Daniel J. Gray; Sets: Cedric Gibbons & Joseph Wright.
From a story by Clarence Aaron “Tod” Robbins.
Cast: Lon Chaney (Prof. Echo/Mrs. O’Grady), Mae Busch (Rosie), Matt Moore (Hector McDonald), Victor McLaglen (Hercules), Harry Earles (Tweedledee), Matthew Betz (Regan), Edward Connelly (Judge), William Humphreys (Defence Attorney), E. Alyn Warren (Prosecuting Attorney), John Merkyl (Jeweler), Charles Wellesley (John Arlington), Marjorie Morton (Mrs. Arlington), Violet Kane (their daughter), Lou Morrison (Police Commissioner), Walter Perry (Carnival Barker), Alice Julian (Fat Lady), Walter P. Cole (Human Skeleton), Peter Kortos (Sword Swallower), Vera Vance (Dancer), John Millerta (Wild Borneo Man), Percy Williams (Butler), Mickey McBan (Boy watching Hercules’ act), Louis Shank (Newsboy), Carrie Daumery (Customer..uncredited), Delmo Fritz (Sword Swallower).
THE UNHOLY THREE (1930/MGM) 74mins. BW. US.
Credits: Dir: Jack Conway; Prod: Irving J. Thalberg; Ex.Prod: Louis B. Mayer; Sc: J.C. Nugent & Elliott Nugent; Ph: Percy Hilburn; Ed: Frank Sullivan; Art: Cedric Gibbons; Recording engineer: Anstruther MacDonald & Douglas Shearer. From a story by Clarence Aaron “Tod” Robbins.
Cast: Lon Chaney (Prof. Echo/Mrs. O’Grady), Lila Lee (Rosie), Harry Earles (Tweedledee), Elliott Nugent (Hector McDonald), Ivan Linow (Hercules), John Miljan (Prosecuting Attorney), Clarence Burton (Regan), Crawford Kent (Defence Attorney), Richard Carle (Carnival Barker), Fred Kelsey (Cop), Ray Cooke (Sailor), Joseph W. Girard (Judge), Charles Gemora (Gorilla), Trixie Friganza (Lady Customer), Sylvester (Sword Swallower), Birdie Thompson (Fat Lady), De Garo (Fire Eater).